Monday March 30th, 2015

Stephen Curry is an icon. Within the narrow context of the NBA he is the best player on the league's best team, an obvious MVP candidate who received more All-Star votes this year than any other player in the league. He is revered and relatable, or perhaps revered because he is relatable; in Curry, basketball fans find a slight, everyman-sized point guard sitting on top of the world—so dominant that he rocked the NCAA tournament while at Davidson and later conquered the NBA game despite seemingly long odds.

Most everything about Curry will soon be emulated if it isn't already. Curry's story is implicitly one of the future: His style will beg imitation and inevitably open doors for other guards who wish to play in a similar vein. It's fitting, then, that the tale of Curry's rise aligns neatly with the trajectory of the basketball development industry.

"Private coaching and being able to have access to it was a big part of my development as a basketball player," Curry said. "...There were some things I needed to work on in fundamentals and skill development as opposed to strictly going out and just playing, which is great. But to have someone that's invested in your strengths and weaknesses individually really helped me get better every single year. I really appreciated that as I got back into AAU and from a recruiting standpoint and all that. It really helped me."

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​The path that Curry took ties in directly to Kobe Bryant's dissatisfaction with AAU basketball as a developmental platform. Earlier this year, Bryant lamented the technical state of the game's young prospects while placing blame with the loose structuring of AAU basketball.

"It's stupid," Bryant said (via ESPN.com). "It doesn't teach our kids how to play the game at all so you wind up having players that are big and they bring it up and they do all this fancy crap and they don't know how to post. They don't know the fundamentals of the game. It's stupid."

That Curry grew up with only intermittent involvement in AAU makes him something of a case study. A young Curry played club basketball and school basketball, as most developing prospects do. Yet he also underwent private coaching from a young age to work on the mechanical specifics of his game in a way that just wasn't possible in a team setting. The trend toward this kind of instruction has been growing for years, but now Curry—announced on Monday as a part-owner of a private coaching company called CoachUp—stands as a clear advocate for the model.

Courtesy of CoachUp

The idea behind CoachUp is brilliantly simple: It's a matchmaker for players of a variety of sports and coaches able to instruct them. The match is made through the filtering of defined variables ranging from game-specific (player position) to logistics (training location and availability). It is a resource born of the age of accessibility; the coaches and players aren't new, merely the means to connect them. That process is much cleaner and safer than combing Craigslist for a coach to instruct a player in his early teens. 

"Coaches are so influential," said CoachUp founder Jordan Fliegel. "And yet there was no platform, there was no governing body that really was able to say [which] are good coaches who are safe with good reviews and base all of that on data."

This is a genuine evolution within the far-reaching and profitable industry of basketball development. The days of high school basketball as a self-standing entity are long since over. For years, AAU leagues have been populated with the best prospects in the country, most of whom pay their own way for participation and travel. That involvement (and cost) won't be replaced by private coaching in the vast majority of cases, but compounded.

"I don't think it's all just private coaching and skill work and it's not all just strictly playing AAU basketball or competitive basketball games that makes a great basketball player," Curry said. "It's a little bit of both."

This is entirely logical. Individual work with a coach makes for the richest environment from a skill training standpoint as it's more directly tailored to a player's game and aims. Yet as Curry would put it: "You're obviously not playing [games] against cones and chairs." Fundamentals need to be put into practice, as can only be done during real game action. So comes AAU or some other club league, particularly for those players stuck in less-than-competitive school districts.

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It all adds up. Playing high-level youth basketball all but requires a significant investment of time and money. Avenues like CoachUp may make it easier to find coaching within a particular price or geographical range, yet they can't help but be instruments in a developmental system that grows and grows. The flip side of accessibility is expectation; as it becomes easier to find convenient individual coaching, for example, its use may become something of an prerequisite for serious prospects.

On a macro scale, this should only be healthy for the state of the game. Bryant isn't wrong about the lack of fundamental instruction in the AAU world and Curry's success stands as testament to the value of seeking it elsewhere.

"If you don't have the proper fundamentals going into competition, and especially as competition gets tougher and tougher with every level that you graduate to, it's a huge disadvantage," Curry said.

Yet on a micro level, it has clearly never been more demanding to be an up-and-coming basketball player. The juggle between school practices, traveling leagues, individual workout time and hired coaching makes for an incredible commitment. It's need comes equally from the best intentions of players to become the best they can and the insufficiencies of prep-level basketball.

"Public schools and private schools are dramatically cutting budget for athletic departments, which tends to be one of the first things cut," Fliegel said. "There's [data suggesting] that it will be dramatically reduced over the next 10 to 20 years. So, youth sports – 40 million kids play it – are being privatized."

Such is the future of youth basketball, for better or worse.

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